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Divorce Corps

The Divorce of Henry VIII: The Untold Story from Inside the Vatican

By Catherine Fletcher
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Right at the outset of her stylish and captivating debut work The Divorce of Henry VIII, historian Catherine Fletcher gives readers the quick broad-strokes version of her story, the one known in general outline to anybody who’s ever taken an English History course in school (or faithfully trooped through the relevant chapters of OLM‘s own A Year with the Tudors):

The divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon is one of those great events of history. You probably know the story. Henry and Catherine have no sons, and Henry comes to believe that this is God’s punishment for marrying his brother’s widow. Henry falls in love with Anne Boleyn. He decides to have his marriage annulled, but the Pope refuses. Henry declares himself head of the Church in England, breaks with Rome and marries Anne. In fifty words or so, that is the famous tale.

Tudor biographies and Hollywood movies fill in some of the details, and those details explicitly (though perhaps accidentally) rebuke the school of historiography that champions trends and forces over the “Great Men” favored by the mighty Victorians. A world of doctrinal upheaval – not to mention a surging ocean of spilled blood on almost every continent on Earth, stretching across centuries, continuing today – resulted from the six years, 1527 – 1536, during which that most Catholic prince, Defender of the Faith, Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn, broke with the Church in order to divorce his wife and marry her, fathered a daughter and at least one stillborn son with her, tired of her, accused her of adultery, witchcraft, and treason, and had her beheaded at Tower Green. And every single detail of that upheaval, every incident of those years, hinged entirely on the caprices of individual human natures. It’s manifestly insufficient to say that since a nationalistically resurgent and cash-strapped England needed the vast treasure-houses represented by Church holdings some break with Rome would have happened anyway, no: Henry the man broke with the Church, for reasons at least as personal as they were practical. Another king – Henry’s milksop brother Arthur, for instance – would not have risked excommunication and booing in the street even for all the gold crucifixes in Lincolnshire.

The “Great Man” applies equally to great women in this case, obviously, since a different woman than Anne Boleyn – her sister Mary, say, or her mother – would have acquiesced to the king’s lust without requiring his crown, and certainly a different woman than Henry’s queen Catherine would have yielded to the pressure of king, court, and cardinals and simply relinquished the title which had brought her so little happiness. Instead, Anne fought for what Henry had no right to give, and Catherine fought for what Henry had no right to take.

Henry demanded an annulment of his marriage to Catherine on dubious grounds of consanguinity: he had married his brother’s wife, against which there are Scriptural forbiddings (he was granted a Papal dispensation to do it). Henry was no fool, nor were his courtiers, nor was Pope Clement VII: the Scriptural justifications were window-dressing for decidedly more worldly motives. Likewise Clement’s demurral, which came about not so much because he quibbled with Henry’s doctrine but because he quavered before Henry’s in-laws: Queen Catherine’s nephew was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the most powerful man in Europe. The Pope was also a prince: Giulio de Medici, no stranger to serpentine intrigue, and he was eager to offend neither of the warlords who suddenly wanted conflicting things from him.

Delicacy was required – enter Fletcher’s main character, Gregorio Casali. When Casali’s father died in 1506, he and his brothers, Paolo, Giambattista, and Francesco, still only boys, were placed in the care of the powerful Papal chamberlain Cardinal Raffaele Riario, grand-nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. They grew up at the heart of Roman politics and Church intrigue. When Gregorio was still only a fast-talking youth of 19, he came into the employment of Henry VIII as an Italian scout for the purchase of pretty horses and hunting dogs. He had a sharp eye, excellent connections, and the fabled Renaissance quality of sprezzatura in buckets and in short order he was being trusted with far more complex matters than safely delivering mastiffs to the Windsor kennel-keeper. Casali was a marquee courtier, always on the lookout for patrons and preferments. Fletcher has unearthed everything existing records can tell us about this young man, and she does a superb, pithy job of relaying it all:

Gregorio’s diplomatic career often crossed national boundaries. His main loyalty was to England but the Gonzaga rulers of Mantua were useful patrons on the side. So, too, was Clement VII. It was a matter of good sense for a man with family interests to advance to keep his options open.

Casali’s brothers were likewise hustling to advance the family fortunes – paid mercenary service, errand-running, and of course benefices in Holy Mother Church – but it was Gregorio who found himself squarely in the middle of the greatest social and international upheaval of his world.

That upheaval had myriad faces. Marriage in state circles in Tudor times was an elaborate chess game of shifting alliances and power politics. It almost never had a personal element, and even when personal feelings developed, they, too, were usually negotiable (Henry VII dearly loved his wife, but he was quietly positioning himself back on the marriage market within bare months of her death). When young Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, he did it for state reasons, for the Spanish alliance, not because he felt a personal connection to this plain and heavily-accented foreigner six years his senior. A male child of such a union would have access to vast amounts of power, and that was the whole point of the transaction – if Catherine had promptly delivered a healthy male baby, if King Henry IX of England (and Enrique I of Spain?) had duly entered the history books, Anne Boleyn (and Jane Seymour, and all the other Howard and Boleyn and Seymour and Shelton girls) would at most be known as a famous mistress. Passion-driven readers (and writers) of historical fiction who proclaim that Henry defied the Church in order to ‘marry for love’ should periodically remind themselves that Henry himself would have laughed in their face at the very idea that a prince could be so stupid.

And yet, there was stupidity involved – stupidity such as Henry’s father (or his basilisk grandmother, Margaret Beaufort) would never have allowed. Henry VIII wanted more than a simple Papal wink at the manifest deficiencies of his old marriage – he could have achieved that (indeed, was offered that) through private Papal assurances passed from Clement to himself through Gregorio Casali’s worn leather dispatch bag.

Instead, the king wanted legitimization; he didn’t just want to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, he wanted the Church to smile on it all, to tell him and everybody else that the past had been a dream. He didn’t want a scorched and scrapped-together compromise; he didn’t even want a second chance – he wanted the highest spiritual authority on Earth (west of the Caliphate, at least) to agree with him that this was his first chance. He was not completely sane about it.

Famously, Catherine fought him. She ignored the entreaties of her husband’s principal henchman, Archbishop Thomas Wolsey. She insisted that her case protesting Henry’s move for a divorce be heard not in England, where she was a foreigner with no friends, but Rome, by the Pope himself. Had Clement been able to meet with his spiritual daughter in private about this request for Papal judgement, he might have tried to strangle her; between his military reversals at the hands of her nephew (divorce or no divorce, there was always war in and around Italy) and the threat of an anti-Papal alliance between the Emperor and France (not to mention the renewed aggression of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman and the “threat of the Turk”), the last thing he wanted to do was alienate the powerful King of England.

Too much of Clement’s power was based on his ecclesiastical authority, however; he had no choice but to respond. Countless delays and evasions later (the secret papal decretal sent to London, for example, was so vaguely worded that Wolsey told Casali and the other envoys to claim it had been “much defaced” by rain and to press for one with “other pregnant, fat and available” words – as Fletcher notes, “Inadequate paperwork was proving an important weapon for a papacy intent on delay”), he decided to send Cardinal Campeggio to England to assay the case for divorce. The King wanted all this to happen quickly, and as usual, it was Casali (whom Fletcher affectionately calls “our man in Rome”) who was caught in the middle:

Casali now found himself with a practical problem on his hands. Cardinal Campeggio had gout. Although he was only in his mid-forties, the curial lifestyle was not conducive to good health and he was not the sort of person to be put on a post horse and pointed north. Apart from the fact that he might not survive the journey, it would be quite beneath his dignity.

During the fevered backstage maneuvering in Italy, Casali and his brothers and their cohorts had known all kinds of private trials – Fletcher mentions how in 1528 fellow envoys Edward Fox and Stephen Gardiner on a trip to Rome were nearly shipwrecked in the English Channel (and that was before they had to cross the Alps in mid-winter) – and they’d caused their fair share of private trials for others: when the Divorce Corps learned of an Imperial messenger working to forge a Papal accord with Charles V, they briefly kidnapped him in order to delay matters, with the happy assent of Gasparo Contarini, the Venetian ambassador (as Fletcher puts it, “Tit-for-tat hostage-taking was a feature of wartime diplomacy”). And in addition to everything else, there was the simple physical difficulty of doing all this behind-the-scenes running around. Horses tired or lamed; roads washed out; borders fluctuated and were zealously guarded; couriers had to negotiate all of it:

But on the whole, diplomacy moved slowly. If new instructions were needed, the turnaround was about a month. In a situation where time was of the essence, like the Sack of Rome [the taking of the city and the Pope in 1527 by the troops of Charles V], diplomats had to make their own decisions. That made the relationship between ambassador and prince all the more important.

Fletcher has the instincts of a dramatist when it comes to describing those ambassadors, figures like the savage old rakehell Sir Francis Bryan:

An intimate of the king and half-cousin to Anne Boleyn, he was known as the “Vicar of Hell.” He and Casali had probably already met during Casali’s first visit to England in 1518-19 and at Wolsey’s summit meeting in France in the summer of 1527. Famed for his love of hunting and gambling, and for the eye he had lost while jousting, Bryan was the Henrician courtier par excellence.

Once Cardinal Campeggio arrived in England, everything about this shadow-world negotiating changed, and Fletcher’s account changes too (not least because Casali himself becomes almost irrelevant). Events move into an unforgiving international spotlight and never subsequently move out of it. In 1529 Pope Clement was well-known to be ill – much hope in England rested on the hopes for his successor (who might have been Wolsey himself). But Clement hung on (and even when he died, his successor, Paul III, was just as vulnerable and thus no more amenable), and so Campeggio found himself in England being pulled in half a dozen directions at once. Henry and Wolsey wanted the matter settled outright, and since Campeggio had been drawing a healthy pension from England (in his capacity as “cardinal protector” and bishop of Salisbury) for years, they expected it. Clement clearly didn’t want his emissary antagonizing the Emperor. Catherine herself brandished damning documents of previous Papal allowances (Henry and Wolsey called them fakes, of course). And the English people loved the Spanish Queen and hated Anne Boleyn.

It was a miserable tangle, and Campeggio did the only thing he could: nothing. He temporized and ultimately prorogued the inquiry until late 1529. Fed up, Henry dismissed Campeggio as legate in May of 1531, and diplomatic activity back in Rome returned to a fever-pitch (presided over, in late August, by the ghostly brilliance of Halley’s Comet). Things moved very quickly once Henry and his ministers decided they had shown enough patient good faith to Rome. The king married his mistress in 1533 and had his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declare the marriage doctrinally impeccable. This was open spiritual war, and the Vatican fired back by excommunicating Henry – a thunderbolt of a move that called on all the faithful to absolve their allegiance to the crown… and that removed Henry’s last reason for restraint. The lands, properties, and incomes of the Church in England were seized, and diplomats and quasi-diplomats like Casali and his cohorts worked hard to cling to whatever scraps of royal favor and employment they could.

The larger procession of subsequent events is well known to even casual student of history (or to readers of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies). Anne Boleyn produced a daughter, but no sons. On May 2, 1536 she was arrested and on the 19th she was beheaded. News traveled as fast as it could, but even so, we have Casali in Rome writing to a friend asking for news about Anne’s arrest – on the 24th, almost a week after her death. In December of 1536 Casali himself died, and with him, Fletcher’s fast-paced book comes to an abrupt halt. The king rolled inexorably onward – dissolving the monasteries, crushing internal dissent, using and discarding emissaries and ministers when his will burned them out. Fletcher’s story – as thoroughly invigorating and new-feeling an account of the history’s most famous divorce as we’re ever likely to get – is suddenly done. Her man in Rome – and all the ragged, semi-anonymous corps of his colleagues – could rest at last.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.